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The “Peace Cross” at a Crossroads

Overview : The Supreme Court has long struggled to establish a single test to determine what constitutes a violation of the First Amendment’s ban against the government establishing a religion. This week, the Court will hear oral arguments in the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Assc., which could change that. After World War I, a group of mothers in Bladensburg, Maryland funded a cross-shaped memorial to honor their sons who were killed in Europe. The memorial passed into the hands of a local parks department around 60 years ago. This government control has led some groups to ask whether this monument and its symbolism represent a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

Objectives :

  • Students will examine the origins of religious liberty in the United States
  • Students will review previous Supreme Court cases concerning the Establishment Clause
  • Students will assess the claims made by both sides in American Legion v. American Humanist Assc. and determine how they believe the court should rule

Resources :

Warm-up Activity (20 minutes)

Directions : Have students read Handout A and answer the following questions:

  1. What revolutionary idea did the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights establish concerning religion?
  2. What does the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibit?

Activity (40 minutes)

Directions : Have students read Handout B and Handout C. Then, use the following questions to lead a class discussion.

  1. How has incorporation affected religious liberty on a state and local level?
  2. What tests has the Supreme Court previously used to determine if government action violates the Establishment Clause?
  3. Why do some claim that the tests are unclear or messy?
  4. Based on your understanding of the First Amendment and previous rulings, do you think that the World War I memorial violates the Establishment Clause?

Extension Activity

The Supreme Court is currently hearing oral arguments on the constitutionality of the memorial. You and your students can access the transcripts for the American Legion v. American Humanist Assc. case here.